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Love the Machine — Cognitive Augmentation and Connection

Love the machine; hate the factory. —Steam Punk Magazine

I don’t memorize things anymore, at least not facts, and why should I? They are a Google away. I don’t know anyone’s phone number, and I don’t have to: I just tap on their face in my contacts list. I don’t write down directions; I just type the address in my phone, or better yet, Google Now tells me when to leave and how to get there. If I need to do math or unit conversion, a simple search returns the answer. In a sense, cognitive augmentation is already here.

I also consume streams of information digitally. For me, there are three major ones — e-mail, RSS, and Twitter — the most prevalent being e-mail, an overlay to my social and professional lives. I don’t use Facebook much, but for many it serves as an adjunct to or, at times, a replacement for their social lives. My understanding of what happens in the world each day comes through a self-curated RSS feed — comments on breaking news, art, editorials. It’s my newspaper in a digital format. Lastly, I use Twitter situationally — watching the Oscars, on election night, or at an event watching comments in real time. These streams act as a digital addendum to the physical world. I almost said “real world” there, but that’s not quite right. These streams are a form of digital connection, in pseudo-real time, to the Internet.

The machine does not isolate man from the great problems of nature but plunges him more deeply into them. —Antoine de St. Exupery

Google and similar tools are a form of cognitive augmentation that multiplies our capacity — this gives us depth. Twitter and other social tools are a form of connection that adds a new dimension, extending our presence — and this gives us breadth. We’re at the early stage of science fiction, plugging into Gibson’s cyberspace or the Matrix.

These are kludgy solutions, not physically integrated…yet. But I do feel integrated. When not online, I feel like I’m missing a piece of my mind (I say this in all seriousness). I have urges to look things up, to be “plugged into” the streams. My mind is accustomed to having access to the Internet. For me, it feels physical on some level, and as we strap Fitbits to our wrists and wear Google Glass, the boundary will blur more.

Setting aside the inevitability of it all, is this a good or bad thing? In hindsight, I think we’d all agree that replacing humans (as an implement of labor) with horses and then tractors (machines) was a good idea for farming. Why is this different? Why memorize states and capitals and presidents and multiplication tables? Does this make us better thinkers or problem solvers? Certainly, we should learn the theory — how to do math, interpret statistics, even derive equations, but why learn facts? Why not work on unique, complicated problems or design something or learn through experience? Why not replace the mental labor of math or facts with augmentation? It frees us up to work on bigger, more interesting, more complicated, more creative problems.

I’m not quite ready to put an internet jack in my head, but I am incredibly excited about our access to increasingly powerful tools of cognition. Just because Big Blue can beat us in chess doesn’t mean it will turn into Hal. Logic is basic by definition: it’s breaking down a concept to a set of rules. It’s the big questions that are interesting.

The future belongs to those who can harness the machines.

But the reason is not that the computer will “take over” the decision. The reason is that with the computer’s taking over computation, people all the way down the line in the organization will have to learn to be executives and to make effective business decisions. —Peter Drucker, The Effective Executive, 1967

iOS vs. Android—Hello, Moto

I’ve been a long-time user of Apple products. I have a MacBook air, an iPhone 5, and an AppleTV (to say nothing of Kris’s iPad Mini, iPhone 5, Mac desktop, and MacBook Air and the plethora of older Apple products lying around at home, waiting to be sold). But while I use Apple devices, Google runs my life — I live in Gmail and use Google’s calendar, Google Drive (in addition to Dropbox), and Chrome. A couple years ago, I had received the original Nexus as a gift, which I played with for about a day and then sold on eBay. It seemed clunky, complicated, and nowhere as good as an iPhone. However, lately I’ve wanted to try Android again and specifically was curious about the MotoX — the new Google marketing is that good. I liked the overall design of the phone, so I went ahead and bought one while keeping my iPhone to fall back on.

Screen Size

The first thing that’s obvious is that the screen is bigger. I don’t use an iPad anymore but have found the iPhone screen to be a bit small. The extra screen size on the MotoX is noticeable and a huge improvement — you can set the font a little smaller, and with the bigger screen, it’s more readable, in my opinion.

Form Factor

As for the overall form factor, you can customize the MotoX’s back panel, choosing one of about 22 colors; the accents, choosing from one of seven colors; and the front panel, choosing from black or white. I chose a chalk back and white front with yellow buttons. I was disappointed in the colors; the whites are too dissimilar, and the yellow is really a metallic gold. (The matching whites are available only through a different carrier, which says something about design though I’m not sure what.) There is an awkward seam around the phone, which creates a ridge. It is bumpy and obvious. You can’t imagine an Apple phone ever looking like this. It feels cheaper than an iPhone for sure — you can tell the difference that Gorilla glass makes, and the phone itself lacks heft. That being said, the curved back feels much more natural in your hand than the brick shape of the iPhone.

Camera

I just started to use the camera. The auto-backup of photos is a nice feature, although I need to decide how to manage this and what to keep online. I use Flickr for all of my processed photos, and at some point, I would like to integrate. The phone comes with a 10.5-megapixel camera, and the photos seems to have a sharpened resolution compared to the iPhone’s photos (not surprisingly since the iPhone’s camera has 8 megapixels). I still need to download some photo-editing apps and play around with them. My guess is that the camera is going to be a wash with a slight nod to the MotoX due to improved resolution. The camera is better placed and seems better protected on the back of the phone as it is inset from the back plane a bit; however, I find myself putting my finger in the divot when I talk on the phone, which can’t be great for the lens.

Google Integration

The phone is deeply integrated with Google. In Chrome, all my passwords are saved. And I am beginning to really appreciate the functionality of Google Now (it told me the other day when I needed to leave to make sure I was on time for my flight). You can see where this is headed — a semi-autonomous personal assistant — and I can’t wait for them to get there. The integration with Google is sharp. For example, I was looking for a scanning application and Googled (note the verb usage) “best scanning apps” only to find that the installed Google Drive app has a scan function. You pull up the app, click scan, take the photo, and save, and it’s immediately in the cloud in your Google Drive. These little discoveries are what make the phone great.

Apps & iOS

In general, Android has more depth and options, is deeply configurable, and will take awhile to optimize. The apps are largely the same, and it was nice to start from a clean slate: I started with next to nothing on the MotoX and added apps only as I needed them. To date, I have found just a few iOS apps that do not have an Android equivalent. Moving out of iTunes and losing my music is probably the biggest loss. I’ve set up Rhapsody (which I’ve used for a long time), Spotify, and Pandora and plan to try streaming as an alternative.

Usability/Misc.

Battery life seems better, maybe 1.5x what the iPhone was getting. The keyboard is about the same, although it’s taking some time to get used to it as it’s slightly larger. The autocorrect and suggested-word functions are helpful, although I’m so hardwired to type that I often dismiss the suggestions before I realize that I am doing so. Small things like the way alerts are shown, the text app, and the phone app are different, but after about a week, you settle into the new commands and locations. The back/return button is confusing: at times it takes you to the home screen, but in some apps it takes you back a page, and because of this, you often back out of apps.

Coverage and Plan

With the MotoX, I switched to a T-mobile unlimited monthly plan (including unlimited data) for $70/month, cutting my AT&T bill in half. AT&T seems to have had better data coverage though. I routinely don’t have data access, which is annoying but also liberating at times. The talk quality seems comparable.

It’s clear that the technology race is between Google and Apple. Google’s design has been upgraded in a major way — from their commercials to their hardware (via the Motorola acquisition and apparently now sale to Lenovo). I’m going to continue to evaluate the two, but at this point, I don’t see why I’d go back. The Android phone just feels smarter. You can see how and why open platforms win — there is more utility when there is more choice. As Kevin Kelly articulated in What Technology Wants, the tie always goes in favor of choice — the Android phone, by nature of being open, has more options, and in a world of evolving technology, it wins.